Festival to Showcase a Slice of Indo-British History

The popular annual Brighton Festival, which commenced in early May, will highlight a vignette from the past. This week noted theatre designer Tom Piper and ceramic artist Paul Cummins will commemorate a crucial chapter in the history of the Brighton Pavilion when it doubled up as a hospital for numerous wounded Indian soldiers who were enlisted in the erstwhile British army and fought in the World War I during 1914-1918 period.

Piper and Cummins shot into limelight for their creation Field of Scarlet Poppies at the Tower of London two years ago. Together, the duo installed thousands of ceramic poppies at the Tower, each marking a casualty in the First World War. Aptly titled Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, it depicted the horrors of the WW-I, becoming a major crowd-puller in the process.

This is Piper’s first major outdoor commission after the ScarletPoppies and is part of the 1418-Now arts programme marking the centenary of the WWI.

For this show, Piper  has created enclosures  resembling birdcages in the gardens surrounding the mansion -thus igniting memories of the wards in the splendid Regency rooms, and  the operating theatre in the old kitchen where  meal were churned out  for royal guests. The gardens will be replete with music, and sounds capes. Actors will recapture words written by some of the soldiers to their faraway homes. At there will be a film projected on to the walls of the pavilion. Interestingly, there will be linked concerts of Indian as well as western music performed by the Philharmonic Orchestra.

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Piper has roped in Ajay Chhabra, artistic director of the performing arts company Nutkhut. During the 1914-1916 period more than 2,000 wounded Indian soldiers were treated at the temporary hospital in the pavilion.

Incidentally Queen Victoria had sold Brighton Pavilion to the Brighton council, fifty years prior to the War. However the propaganda value of the edifice suddenly dawned on the authorities after hospital began full-scale operations therein.

Accordingly, professional photographers were sent in to interview the patients in the improvised wards and the images were circulated across the empire via books and postcards.

Talking about the project Ajay Chhabra says, “The images are beautifully composed and elegant, but the more I looked at them, the more troubling I found them…….. they are very careful theatrical compositions, with none of the patients named, no sign of suffering or pain.”   He hastens to add. “What is entirely missing from the record is the wives, sisters and sweethearts the men were writing back to. We have tried to put all of these voices back into the narrative.”

Though the quality time that each visitor spends at the exhibition may vary, yet Piper feels  the experience is bound to be  moving and memorable.

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